Roger Federer wins the first set without much strain, but Jo-Wilfried Tsonga roars back in the second, putting on an impressive display of grit and forehand power in the late games and the tiebreak, holding off match points and putting the defending champion on the defensive with his serve and volley game. It is the final in the last tournament of the year, the London Masters (officially the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, made possible, as you guessed, by Barclay's, where I do not have an account). There is a five million purse (in dollars) and the distinction of being the best of the field, who for this event are the top eight ranking players in the world.
Roger calms down and takes charge of the match early in the third set, setting the pace and the style with those sharpshooter forehands down the line, as opposed to Jo's cannon balls. You cannot be too careful with him, given as he is to great spurts of fantastic athleticism combined with unerring power -- as Federer learned only too painfully in this year's Wimbledon quarter-finals. But when you see Federer playing with such accuracy, you remember what made him the dominant, unbeatable player during most of the last decade and you ask yourself where he has been recently, this year in particular, the first since 2002 that he has not won a single major (one of the four Grand Slams) event.
The truth of course is that he has been very near the top and has had a very good year by any standard you want -- except his. A great many players, including Jo-W. Tsonga, would be very happy to have made it to the quarters, semis, or final of every major, and to have topped it off with a brilliant run during the fall season (also referred to as the season-finals, depending on whether you are talking about the earth or the sport, and this sort of confusion is not irrelevant to what is wrong with sports in general these days). This run took him from a happy hometown win at the Basel Indoors after the disappointing U.S. Open (where he beat Tsonga in the quarters in straight sets and then blew a lead that included a match point to Djokovic in the semis), to victory at the Paris Masters (over Tsonga, straight sets again), and now this, the famous season-ending ATP Masters final of finals, where only the top eight ranked players compete. Going into the final, his 100th, Federer holds a tie for the record number of wins here, five.
Tsonga, who is from Le Mans, a small city on the Loire river famous for a 24-hour automobile race and its ancient downtown neighborhoods, is only an inch and a few pounds bigger than Federer, whose own height and strength are somewhat hidden on TV by his elegance and agile movements. (But where would we be without the tennis channel, the sport's C-Span? We'd be watching football.) At 30, Federer does not seem any less the cheetah of a few years ago. Frankly I am not sure why so many people insist you are over the top at age 24 or something -- though compared to him in the past couple weeks, the mid-20s No. 1 and 2, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal, certainly did look over the top and ready for the rest home, even, as did Andy Murray, who lost his No. 3 rank to Federer when he withdrew after his first match here, pain in the groin reportedly.
We live in a time when people assume athletes flame out just as they are finding their potential, even as they go about desperately pretending they are still kids. Look at the way people dress, listen (or try to) the music they favor, the movies they watch, the simian patterns of speech (actually unfair to simians), the irresponsible ways they spend money they do not have, the avoidance of responsibility, the blaming everybody else for everything. Moreover, this young-tennis-champ notion is not even accurate -- it is easy to think of players in every era who lasted much longer than the current crop (Federer and a handful of others excepted) -- Agassi, Laver, Gonzales, Tilden… and on the ladies' side, too, Martina Navratilova, Margaret Smith Court… It must have something to do with the hysterical mode that has seized so much of our cultural life. Expansion teams, post-seasons, scandals, incomprehensible regulations, the price of tickets: why, in London's O2, another reason why I am thankful for the tube, they were selling seats for up to 300 pounds per. Match, I mean. You would think 300 pounds would get you the whole tournament and all the fish 'n chips you can eat, plus hotel. But no.
Federer, at any rate, is one of the most superbly conditioned athletes today. It is quite clear to anyone who has watched him in competition that he has one of these once-in-a-generation athletic talents, a man like Pete Rose, say, or Willie Mays, or John Elway or Joe Namath or -- to sum it up in one name -- Michael Jordan. He does things that are not supposed to be possible, the line drive forehands while springing backwards, the inside-out shots in order to place it where your opponent least expects it, the on-a-dime service aces, the nerves, ice-cool, unflappable. A slight frown, a mild shake of the head is the most you will get out of Roger Federer when he is playing below his own standards. The shoulders fall just a quarter inch, the eyes, if you can catch the glint, seem just a tiny bit dull. Put it this way, he is not Bjorn Borg, but he is no Johnny-Mac, either.
The condition of Federer's body, however, contrasts brazenly with the visible physical and mental exhaustion observed in his main rivals, Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal. David Ferrer, who with Rafa and a few other caballeros will be carrying Spain's colors against the Argentines this week in Sevilla, told an interviewer after losing out in the round-robin point system (understood by few, acknowledged by all), "I'm tired. Tired. I'm really, really tired. I'm very tired." The man must be flat-out tired.
Nadal said he just did not have his head in it any more. Federer must have agreed when he crushed him at the O2 by the unheard of score of 6-3, 6-0. Djokovic confessed that he had neither physical nor mental energy. He had a great year -- three majors --, but now body and mind both, poof. When you get down to the hard analysis, the London Masters, where the best play the best, was not exactly the best tournament of the year, drama-wise. There were excellent moments, such as Tsonga's heroic from-behind effort in the second set of the final which pushed the match to a decider (and made Federer decide to put an end to any Mister Nice Guy notions he entertained), but you could tell they were all… tired.
Except the man who defines tennis. And this being the time of year when you consider The State of Everything, you have to ask yourself what this means. Is the Tour just too draining for ordinary top players? Murray, Djokovic, and Nadal all had to plead injuries at various events to explain withdrawal or shellacking. Tennis is not a contact sport. Is there just too much of it -- too many tournaments, in too many time zones? Is there something flawed in the tennis "season" -- in fact a year-long program of events major and minor that necessarily lessens the value of each one of them? How is it that the Davis Cup, which used to be an event almost on par with the World Series, getting attention from people with no other interest in the sport, is almost a forgotten footnote on the annual sports calendar?
Of course everyone is tired at the end of the season. Tony LaRussa was tired a few weeks ago, as was Ron Washington. What is different about tennis? What is different is that here, the last man standing is the only man who could still stand, and that is, face it, weird, no matter what exceptional qualities, and they are many, Roger Federer possesses.
With the 2011 Tour over, there is now a month of rest, unless you are a Spaniard or an Argentine, before the competition is renewed in Australia with the Brisbane International in the first days of the new year, warming up for the Australian Open at Melbourne in the middle of January. Rod Laver thinks there are still some majors with Roger Federer's name on their trophies, and hints he is betting the Aussie Open could be the first of these. Federer, who now holds the record (six) for the Masters Final, and who added the Paris Masters to his long list of triumphs just a week before when he beat Tsonga, may yet surprise us, demonstrating that his loss of the No. 1 ranking was only a momentary lapse. The others can start eating vitamins.